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A Woman True and Fair - Chapter 25

Happy Vernal Equinox, everyone.
I know it's been a while. If you need a refresher, chapter 24 is here.



Characters this chapter: Howl, Neil Parry, Miss Angorian, Sophie, Michael, Calcifer
Rating: PG


A Woman True and Fair

Chapter 25:
Hot and Cold


Howell couldn't get out of Upper Folding fast enough. Listening to his character being assassinated wasn't half as amusing today, somehow, as it usually was. He worried how much influence Lettie would have over Sophie when she finally did realise her feelings for him and he could begin to be honest with her. If it was more than not very much, there could be trouble. In his present mood, Howell could have brooded over the conundrum for some time, but he just didn't have the leisure for brooding today. Not, that was, if he was going to be back at the castle before Michael and Sophie awakened.

Howell didn't want Sophie to see him walk back out through the Wales door. In fact, he wanted her nowhere near Wales right now. So, instead of going back to the moving castle and using his own gateway, he transported himself to a secret spring in the Folding Valley where he knew another gateway was hidden. This one let out right in Aberaman, so there would be no long train ride in from the park.

When he arrived in Wales, Howell realised he had spent too much time in Mrs. Fairfax's kitchen. School children filed past him in small groups on their way to ysgol gyfun. Neil would have already left the house as well. If he could just remember which school it was his nephew attended... No, that was a lost cause. Howell had no memory for details that did not himself. So he performed a divination spell, instead. It was faster, and would tell him if Neil had stayed home from school or was perhaps running late. Performing a spell in Wales right now would no doubt alert the fire demon to his presence, but she already had him over a barrel. Howell did not think he could make it any worse, and he wanted to get the protective charm to his nephew as soon as possible.

The pendulum led him to the school not a moment too soon. Howell spied Neil trudging up the path to the doors. "Neil!" he shouted. Other heads turned, but not his nephew's. "Neil Parry!" The boy finally turned round and glowered when he saw who it was. Nevertheless, he trudged over. Even an unexpected visit from one's irresponsible uncle was not a fate worse than school.

"What d'you want?" he grunted.

Howell leaned against the fence, pretending to be relaxed. "Another lovely greeting. You know, Neil, if you're not careful, you might hurt your uncle's feelings." His nephew stared at him, mute. His expression did not change. How quickly they grew up. "And who, may I ask was it gave you that brilliant new game last night?"

"Sorry," Neil said, somewhat chastened. "It's just I'm going to be late. Miss Angorian gives detention for tardies."

Howell smirked. "Well, I shall be your excuse. Don't worry, she can blame me." But he was hardly as cavalier as he pretended. It disturbed him to hear that Miss Angorian was not only Neil’s English tutor but took his attendance in the mornings as well. His reason for having come seemed more pressing than ever. "There's something I meant to give you last night, but I’d forgot. Something that goes with the game."

"Really?" Neil asked, ignoring the first school bell now he was properly interested. "Is it cheating instructions? Albert and I couldn't work out how to get back in the moving castle door. We kept getting stuck out on the hillside."

Howell chortled at the idea. "No, I'm afraid not. Though if that happens again, just ask the fire demon to open the door for you."

Neil looked puzzled. "You can just ask him? But he's so uncooperative."

"Things are not always what they seem in that game," Howell told him with an egotistical smirk.

"Oh," Neil replied, profoundly. "So what is it?"

Howell pretended to be fishing inside his rugby jacket pockets for it. "Well, it's a sort of. Key ring. Shaped like your favourite character."

"The wizard's apprentice?" Neil asked excitedly.

Howell frowned. "I suppose." But he couldn't keep from asking, "What about the wizard? You don't like him?"

Neil snorted. "Ugh, what a poof!" He wrinkled his nose. "You should see the sorts of clothes he wears. He looks like a woman!" And, as if that were not enough of an insult, he added, "Even Albert wouldn't play him. He chose the old lady, instead. At least she has a stick to beat people with."

"But," Howell spluttered. "The wizard is the most powerful player-character!"

Neil wrinkled his nose again and waved a hand. "Pass." Apparently keen fashion sense was more of a liability than an asset in the world of Neil Parry.

It took Howell a moment to get his acute feelings on the matter under control. In the meantime, the tardy bell rang. When he’d got his bruised ego under control, Howell solidified his tracking and protection spell into a small plastic figurine of Michael, a key ring attached to the cowlick in his hair. He brought his hand out of his pocket and offered it to Neil. "Well, at any rate, there you are."

"Jee, thanks!" Neil said, all smiles now. "I can put my house key on it!"

"Good idea," Howell said. "Just be sure you don't lose it. Don't show it about in class and get it taken away by the tutor."

"Oh, I won't," Neil replied religiously. "Miss Angorian doesn't allow anything like that during class. And I wouldn't give away my house key."

"Good lad." Howell gave him a pat on the shoulder. "Well, shall we go? I believe I owe your Miss Angorian an explanation of why you're tardy."

"Tell her something convincing," Neil suggested. "I don't want detention."

"Never fear," he told him, ushering Neil ahead of him through the doors, "Uncle Howell is here." His nephew did not look terribly reassured by this.

Neil led the way down several narrow halls smelling of janitorial products as a doomed man walks the green mile. When they reached the proper door, Neil paused and looked awkward. Howell did not mind opening the door himself, and did so. Two dozen faces turned to look at him as Miss Angorian suddenly stopped her lecture at the front of the room. Her eyes seemed to burn as she glared at his interruption.

"Miss Angorian," Howell smiled most charmingly. "May I see you for a moment?"

There were curious looks and a snicker or two from the class. "I don't see why I should," she snapped, dour and prim as ever. "You have no authority to interrupt my classroom, Howell Jenkins." Expressions changed as she said the name, and various scabby-kneed girls bent forward over their desks to get a better look at him. Howell obliged them by posing very elegantly, yet nonchalantly, leaning against the door frame. "I suppose you have come to tell me why your nephew has arrived late to school today?"

As if this were his cue, Neil rushed past, head ducked low as if to avoid a blow. He slid into his seat to watch with the rest of their audience. "That," Howell smiled, "And to confirm our date for supper this evening." He winked, and the class erupted in excited murmurs.

The fire demon turned on them severely. "There will be absolutely none of that!" she all but shouted. Her glare silenced the room immediately. "You!" she turned back and leveled that glare at Howell, "will step outside with me for a moment. And don't think for a minute that I am going anywhere with you."

"But you've just agreed to come outside with me," Howell grinned.

"Because you insist on disrupting my class!" she snapped. "And not on a date!"

"Perhaps just coffee, then?" There were titters from the class, and Miss Angorian curtly shut the door on them.

"Mr. Jenkins," she began, "I do not tolerate this kind of insolence and inconsideration from my students, and I shall not tolerate it from you, either. If you have something to say to me, make it brief. I am paid to educate these children, not chat with you."

"Very well," Howell said, raising his hands in surrender. "I merely wanted to let you know that it's my fault Neil was late this morning. If you want to assign someone detention, you should assign it to me."

"Have no doubt," she told him sternly, "If I could, I would."

"Miss Angorian," Howell tittered. "What an interesting way you have of flirting with a man."

"I suggest you not flatter yourself." She glared at him, adding, "If it is even in your power to do so."

"I am duly chastised," he told her, unrepentant. "Now about that cup of coffee..."

"Oh, fine!" she pretended to relent at last. "If it will get you to leave me alone so that I may return to my job, I'll agree to have coffee with you."

"And don't give Neil detention for being tardy," Howell added.

"It will only be a very brief cup of coffee," she bargained.

"Done."

"Then, if you'll excuse me. Some of us have jobs to get back to," she said pointedly.

Howell grinned innocently and waved. "Until next week, then."

"Fine." She pretended to storm back to her classroom, which Howell noted with pride he had utterly disrupted, his eyes following the paper airplane that went sailing past the door as Miss Angorian opened it. He knew this had all been part of their plan, to lure him in even before the curse came to fruition. Yet the fire demon had played her part almost too well. If Howell had given up after her treatment yesterday, he would never have procured the fateful date.

Deciding he would worry about what to do over coffee when the time came, Howell left the school and walked to Megan's, intending to let himself back into the castle. It was early enough, Sophie would probably not see from whence he was returning. A chill wind blew his hair askew as he made his way to Rivendell. The sky was a slate grey with no sign of sun. He thrust his hands deep into the pockets of his jacket and thought how ridiculous it was to be wishing for gloves in June. Why did the weather in Wales always have to be so miserable?

By the time he reached the street, the eternal drizzle had sped up to a steady rain, and Howell was quite miserable outside as inside. He looked around to make sure none of the neighbours were out to watch him walk into the castle, and that Megan was not coming or going on errands with Mari. It would be unfortunate to run into his sister again after yesterday. Howell might have been happy to climb the stairs to the porch if it had not been leaky. He seemed to get even more wet standing before the door than he'd gotten walking in the rain. Howell was looking forward to standing in front of the hearth when he got home. Unfortunately, achieving that goal turned out to be more difficult than it should have been.

Casting the spell to unlock the special safety precautions he and Calcifer had constructed, Howell tried the door, but it would not budge. He tried again, several more times, and added a variation on an unlocking spell to get the over-protected door to obey him without luck. He even changed his clothes, thinking perhaps the spell had not recognized him in his Welsh attire. As he did so, it took an effort not to think about what Neil had said about ‘the wizard’s’ clothes. He had never had to do so before, but Howell tried unlocking Megan's door before trying the one that led to the castle. Still nothing. By this point, he was cross as well as wet and miserable. If he could have got away with it, he would have shouted to Calcifer to open the door. But he did not need Megan’s neighbours telling stories of him standing on her front porch, shouting out the Goetia.

Stepping back to consider the problem from a more calm standpoint, Howell recognized that unlocking the door did not seem to be the problem, for the knob turned just as it was supposed to do. This meant that the door must have been blocked from the inside. Had Sophie realised he’d gone to Wales and locked him out from jealousy, assuming he’d gone to court “Miss Angorian”? On any other day, Howell might have chuckled at this, but not now when he felt like a drowned rat and could feel a cold creeping into his throat.

If it was blocked, there was only one thing to do: use brute force to unblock it. Howell used his rugby training to throw himself against the door, hoping that it was merely a chair she’d put against the door knob. He did not weigh enough to budge much more than that. When he jarred his shoulder without getting the door to do more than rattle a bit, Howell’s temper snapped. He was going to get back home and stand in front of his fireplace if it took exploding the door in. And that was just what he did, hurling a powerful combat spell against it that could have blown a hole in Megan's house, if he'd not aimed it precisely. The door, well-insulated with protection spells as it was, remained intact, but something splintered and exploded inwards beyond it. Howell stepped inside and glared at the culprit, who was standing alone in the center of the room, looking rather frightened. "This is a bit much, Sophie!" he chastised her. "I do live here!"

Just as he began to feel bad for yelling at her, the frightened mousy look on her face changed to one of her holier-than-thous. After pointedly looking at the knob turned to black-down, she demanded to know where he’d been. So Howell had guessed correctly the reason she’d locked him out. Instead of losing his temper, he chose to sneeze, a blatant play for sympathy. Then he told her with a pathetic look known to inspire guilt that he’d been out in the rain. When this inspired neither guilt nor sympathy from Sophie, who only raised an accusing eyebrow, he snapped that where he’d been was not her concern.

Howell’s voice was already starting to go. He desperately needed a throat lozenge. He was torn between conjuring one and giving Sophie the row she seemed to want when Howell caught Michael walking casually out of the broom cupboard – or attempting to do so in a casual manner. This spoke of a story he should probably hear. Bending to examine one of the large wood splinters that now littered the floor, he asked what the planks had been meant to do precisely. Michael froze on his way out of the cupboard and hung his head guiltily before confessing it was his doing.

So his apprentice didn’t trust him to protect them in his own home? Didn’t he know Howell would never have left if he’d felt they would be in danger if he did? Well, perhaps Michael did think that. Howell was growing weary of having his character slandered today, especially since most of it was well-deserved. “You must think I don’t know my business,” he said, becoming more annoyed by the moment. “I have so many misdirection spells out that most people wouldn’t find us at all.” After he explained this, Howell paused, hoping Sophie would not put two and two together and realize why it was she hadn’t been able to find her way back to the Kingsbury entrance yesterday. When she did not shout or glower at him meaningfully, he continued, “I give even the Witch three days.” That said, he turned his attention to Calcifer, demanding a hot drink.

But as Howell began his sodden trek over to the hearth, leaving a trail of wet footprints, his clothes dripping rain, the fire demon dove down under his logs, telling him to stay away, observing brilliantly that he was wet, as if Howell hadn’t noticed. He should have known the old coward would not be sympathetic to his plight. Howell turned to plead with Sophie, who still looked annoyed he’d come through the gateway to Wales.

She crossed her arms over her chest, her stance immovable toward feeling anything but disgust for him, as usual. “What about Lettie?”

Lettie was the last person Howell wanted to think of right now. He thought his cheek might still be red from where she’d slapped him. “I’m soaked through,” he pleaded. “I think I should have a hot drink.” Sophie must be quite angry with him indeed if she was able to ignore her incessant mothering instinct when he was pouting at her so endearingly.

“And I said what about Lettie Hatter?” she repeated.

Howell simply couldn’t fathom the woman. How was she now suddenly in favour of his getting together with her sister? Hadn’t she come out to Mrs. Fairfax’s in order to warn Lettie against him? What was this, then, a change of heart? Did she no longer secretly care for him at all? Howell lost hold of his temper for the second time today. He was not about to discuss his failure with Lettie with anyone, much less her bossy elder sister whom he happened to love better. “Bother you, then!” he swore, and cast a spell to dry himself out. With great relief, he stepped away from the water that had been plaguing him for the last hour. But it was not enough. He could feel his lymph nodes swelling by the moment.

Howell went to the cupboard to retrieve the kettle, feeling quite martyred. He decided he was not speaking to Sophie or Calcifer. So he addressed Michael, instead. “The world is full of hard-hearted women, Michael.” He filled the kettle with water before banging it meaningly on top of the logs. “I can name three without stopping to think.” He did not add that two of them were named Hatter.

Sophie rightly recognized he was saying it to get back at her, and answered, “One of them being Miss Angorian?”

Howell was somewhat mollified that she’d guessed wrong. He was not about to tell Sophie Miss Angorian was not a woman at all. In fact, he did not answer her. He was not speaking to her. He felt it unduly cruel of her to have become argumentative with him in his time of need. If he got a proper cold now, he would blame her hard-heartedness.

He could not, unfortunately, ignore Calcifer for long, as they had important business to discuss. "Right," Howell said, sitting down in Sophie's chair while ignominiously ignoring Sophie’s presence in case she should decide to start something else. "We're moving the castle. Calcifer? Michael? Any ideas for new entrances?"

"Not the Porthaven entrance!" Calcifer said, his voice shrill with fear. He was half under his logs again, as if he thought Howell might be hiding rain somewhere, waiting to douse him with hit.

Howell sighed, feeling his nose begin to go stuffy. The chill of Wales had got into his bones, and he was not looking forward to the way it seemed to want to work itself back out. "All right. Any suggestions for where we should move any of the entrances?" he asked.

"Somewhere there are no women to go gadding off with," Sophie grumbled, stabbing her needle into the remains of his blue and silver suit she was tormenting. Howell ignored her.

"What about Market Chipping?" Michael asked, tentatively.

Howell turned in time to see him exchange a look with Sophie. Did she know of his apprentice and the Lettie at Cesari's, as well? "Perhaps," he replied, "if there’s real estate available in town."

"Oh, I'm sure there's something," Michael said, sounding a bit desperate. "I'd be happy to look into it."

"Good. Any other ideas?"

Sophie, who was apparently tired of being ignored, made a suggestion for where Howell could put an entrance which he did not find terribly suitable, especially given the language involved. He magnanimously ignored it, along with Calcifer's unkind sniggering.

"Fine," Howell said. "If there are no other ideas, I leave the matter open to your consideration. Mrs. Pentstemmon's funeral is my primary concern, so none of this will happen before tomorrow. In the meanwhile, Michael, I'm going to need you to go into town and get various supplies for the operation." He stood and went over to the much-abused workbench to hunt out a pen and paper. As he continued to speak, Howell began to write out a list of supplies. "First, we'll have to locate each of the anchor sigils in the house..."

"I said don't move the Porthaven entrance!" Calcifer wailed.

Howell felt his nose begin to drip and became even more annoyed with the fire demon's single-mindedness. "I don't think we need move the Porthaven entrance," he answered testily, before summoning a tissue and blowing his runny nose on it. "But I want the castle well away from anywhere it's been before and the Kingsbury entrance shut down." Sophie snorted and muttered something about despicable cowards.

He was just about to glare at her over the tissue he was still holding to his nose when there came a knock at the door. Howell, Michael, and Calcifer jumped in tandem and stared apprehensively at the door, as if expecting it to explode inward again. Perhaps Sophie was still disgruntled at being ignored, or perhaps she thought they should open the door, for she seemed to get very annoyed just then, muttering loudly to her sewing. "I must have been mad!"

"Past tense?" Howell asked softly, and Michael elbowed him sharply in the ribs, trying not to laugh at what was quickly becoming a running joke between them. They waited, tense, for a few minutes until the person knocking gave up and went away.

Michael had lived with Howell long enough to have learned his trick of changing the subject so less attention was drawn to the fact of his cowardice, and he used it now. "What about the black-down entrance?" he asked.

"That stays," Howell answered without having to think. His throat was beginning to close up with mucus, and he summoned another tissue, trying to make a game of it with the hand gestures he used. He knew he was going to have to summon many more before this cold had run its course. Sophie snorted, as if she'd known he was going to say that. Still jealous of Miss Angorian, it would seem. Howell let it go, because her jealousy was a comfort to him. If Sophie did not understand that his family was on the other side and he would not bear to be separated from them permanently, it did not bear explaining.

Howell talked Michael and Calcifer through the process they would need to move tomorrow. After several minutes, his sentences began to be punctuated with sneezes, and he found himself needing more tissues. As time went on, Howell would have to stop for a fit of coughing now and then. His head became so stuffy he could hardly hear Sophie's disapproving grunts and snorts anymore. When just sitting on his chair was proving a dizzying task, Howell slumped melodramatically. "Oh, why is it that whenever I go to Wales I always come back with a cold!" Howell noticed his voice had gone from sexy to croaky and thought perhaps it was time to stop speaking for now. He considered summoning whole boxes of tissue instead of just fistfuls.

Sophie snorted her opinion on the matter, but all Howell's plugged ears could make out was a brief syllable in her unhappy tone. "Did you say something?" he turned around to look at her. His voice made it into more of a genuine question than the threat he'd intended; Howell knew she'd made a smart remark of some kind.

"No," she answered, though this did not stop her from voicing her opinion on the matter now. "But I was thinking that people who run away from everything deserve every cold they get!" Howell's mouth opened and closed in indignation, and he felt genuinely hurt. She was wishing this on him? Well that was all he needed: being cursed by two witches at once. He shuddered to think the sort of things Lettie was currently wishing on him. But Sophie was not finished. "People who are appointed to do something by the King and go courting in the rain instead have only themselves to blame."

Howell knew he was feeling truly ill when he became defensive instead of just slithering out like he normally would have. "You don't know everything I do, Mrs. Moralizer," he snapped with dignity. "Want me to write out a list before I go out another time?" It was rather like the nagging wife, asking him to justify every moment of his absence from home. But Howell was too aggravated by Sophie’s words to be amused. “I have looked for Prince Justin." And that was the terrible truth of it. "Courting isn't the only thing I do when I go out." Though he wasn't about to give her any clues to what the rest was. Howell's noble pastimes were his shameful, private business. Sophie added insult to injury by refusing to believe his claim, demanding to know when he’d allegedly performed this noble deed.

Yes, Howell knew he was ill, because the insults just fell out of his mouth, like that fairy tale about the girl who spoke snakes and toads. "Oh, how your ears flap and your long nose twitches!" He really did not appreciate being disbelieved on those rare occasions when he chose to tell the truth. "I looked when he first disappeared, of course. I was curious to know what Prince Justin was doing up this way, when everyone knew Suliman had gone to the Waste. I think someone must have sold him a dud finding spell, because he went right over into the Folding Valley and bought another from Mrs. Fairfax. And that fetched him back this way, fairly naturally, where he stopped at the castle and Michael sold him another finding spell and a disguise spell--"

As Howell had spoken, Michael had turned pale, and his eyes grew wide. "Was that man in the green uniform Prince Justin?" he interrupted.

"Yes, but I didn't mention the matter before." Howell had not been home at the time, his brilliant mind had merely put the pieces together after the fact with Michael's retelling and his own research on the missing Prince. He explained further why he'd kept his apprentice in the dark, "Because the King might have thought you should have had the sense to sell him another dud. I had a conscience about it." And he had. Apart from the fact Howell did not want to become known as a Wizard who sold dud spells. That was not the kind of reputation he'd been fostering in Ingary for the last five years.

"Conscience," he leaned forward, stressing the word for Sophie's benefit. "Notice that word, Mrs. Longnose. I had a conscience." Howell's point was made less firm by the fact both nostrils were dripping a clear, viscous liquid down his face by this point. He conjured another fistful of tissue and plugged the dam, knowing his eyes were red and puffy as tomatoes, but giving Sophie the best glare he could out of them anyway.

When, on top of everything else, Howell’s stomach gave an uncomfortably lurch, he gathered himself with as much dignity as he could muster, deciding that further arrangements - as well as arguments with Sophie - could wait until tomorrow. "I feel ill," Howell announced to his audience of three. "I'm going to bed, where I may die." Calcifer leaned out of the grate to watch the wizard wobble over to the stairs, as if hoping Howell might do just that. At least Michael looked somewhat sympathetic. Sophie did not even look up from her sewing. "Bury me beside Mrs. Pentstemmon," he adjured them as Howell pulled himself self-pityingly up the stairs.

~~

Author's Note: A lot of DWJ dialogue in this one, once Howl gets home. A lot.
I'm not all together happy with this chapter, but this is the best I was going to do and meet the deadline. I'm facing a major move in the next two months, and I'm afraid that's going to take up the bulk of my attention for a while. I'm not sure when I'll be updating again. I will update again, I'm just not sure if it will be before or after the move.

Thanks to those patient few who've stuck with me.


Cross-posted to movingcastle and howl_fans.
Apologies to those who see this more than once.
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